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Environment and Communications References Committee - 21/07/2014 - Great Barrier Reef

HOEGH-GULDBERG, Professor Ove, Private capacity

PILLANS, Dr Suzanne, Private capacity

[9:48]

CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Do you have any comments to make about the capacity in which you appear?

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : I am Director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland and I have worked on the reef for about 25 years on matters related to environmental change.

Dr Pillans : I am also with the Global Change Institute. I manage the Healthy Oceans Program at the University of Queensland and I am a PhD researcher in marine science and management effectiveness.

CHAIR: The committee has your submission. I invite either or both of you to make a brief opening statement, then the committee will ask questions.

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : Thank you very much for the invitation to appear before you. We take this very seriously; it is an issue very close to our scientific and Australian hearts. Our submission makes a very strong case that current Australian and Queensland government efforts to stop the rapid decline of the Great Barrier Reef are proving inadequate, as demonstrated by the fact that things like corals are going downhill. As we heard from the previous submission, 50 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef's corals are absolutely crucial to the biology of the reef and its ability to produce the $6 billion worth of earnings for us each year. Half of them have disappeared since the early 1980s.

We believe that there is a great need for a rethink—that we are living a little in a fantasy land, if not a lot, as Dr McGrath pointed out. Basically not enough is being done. We are not dealing with the core issues. The core issues come down to two things. The first is water quality and the second is climate change. When I say climate change, it is a combination of ocean warming and acidification. It is a little perverse that those are totally linked. One of the things that I find quite incredible is that we are expanding activities that will drive increasing amounts of fossil fuels into the global market at a time when we know that will kill the reef. As Dr McGrath pointed out, we have to be honest with the Australian people that we are, in our current set of policies, planning to do the reef in. That has to be put forward and that transparency is very good.

In our submission there are three things that we try to point out. The first is that the health of the Great Barrier Reef is declining rapidly as a result of deteriorating water quality and climate change. The evidence of this is undeniable. It has been rigorously measured and reported by many experts, including the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville. It is as a result of multiple disturbances. Things like crown of the thorns outbreaks are linked to water quality. That is contrary to some of the advertising campaigns that were made. Things like recovery from storms are linked to water quality. It is a prize fighter. If you look at a prize fighter you will see that, if he—or she, I should say—is healthy, they can bounce back up and keep fighting, but if you stress out the prize fighter, do not let them have sleep and feed them poisonous food, they will get up a lot more slowly and eventually they will not get up, and that is what we are seeing with Great Barrier Reef. We are increasing the cumulative impacts that are making it harder for it to come back from disturbances, and that is an important point which has been made already.

The second point we make is that the threats and changes to the Great Barrier Reef are accelerating as opposed to slowing, indicating, as I have said before, that current efforts are not enough to stem this. If this inquiry is about whether we are doing enough, well we are not. Our current efforts are inadequate.

The third point we make is that a failure to deal with the overriding climate issue will make all efforts meaningless. As we heard from Professor Mumby, we are talking about a reef that is still there, but it is not the Great Barrier Reef anymore, it is not the reef that will attract the 1.4 million visitors each year, it is not the one that we will take pride in, and it is not the one that we will continue, in perpetuity, to provide income and jobs to 63,000 people, mainly in Queensland. That is really important.

Without these steps the Great Barrier Reef is destined to degrade, passing a critical point on the watch of the current state and federal governments. It begs the question: do the current state and federal governments really want to be known as the governments that failed to save the Great Barrier Reef and had a hand in destroying the livelihoods of many dependent Australian communities and industries?

To close, it is becoming abundantly clear that we can no longer fly below the radar on this issue and we have to come clean. Just last month, I was invited by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to present at the Our Ocean Conference. I listened firsthand to people like actor Leonardo DiCaprio, which my daughter saw great significance in—I still do not understand. Basically, Leonardo got up and related his personal disappointment and shock during his recent visit to the Great Barrier Reef. I heard other people, probably less profiled than Leonardo DiCaprio, also speak. So this is out there. It is a disappointment that is spilling into the obvious question: how could a wealthy, modern nation such as Australia treat an important and iconic ecosystem like the Great Barrier Reef with such abandon? We look forward to answering any questions you might have. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for that opening statement. Before I go to questions, I will just note that the ABC is here filming. Are there any objections from anybody to that? No, there are not. That is fine, thank you.

I have some questions before I go to Senator Waters. Professor, you did mention that not enough is being done and that current efforts are inadequate. In the context of the current efforts and what is being done, are we targeting the right areas of the reef, or are we focusing perhaps too much on tourist areas and not enough on the broader area of the reef? Also, you mentioned in your submission that further research is required to determine which rehab strategies will be most effective. Who would do that research? And where are we going to focus that research activity on, given the budget constraints that we are operating under?

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : In answer to the first question, the targeting of resources is a separate matter from the amount of resources. There has certainly been very good progress, I think, with the initiatives with farmers in Queensland—and I believe there have been some significant wins in that area. But of course there are many disturbances along the Queensland coastline, and I think the latest issue over port development has been one of the very important things which have been flying a bit under the radar; now it has burst onto the scene. In that case, I think we are hearing, fortunately, from many political leaders that we will start to restrict that footprint, and that is a very good step in the right direction. But we still have a very poor understanding of the connectivity of activities on land and the Great Barrier Reef in general. We know that there are some serious issues, but we do not, for example, have really good models of where sediments go once they are re-suspended during major storms and floods. If you look at the IPCC, which I have been involved in as a coordinating lead author, there are implications about changes to the hydrological cycle which will mean greater movement of coastal sediments, dredge spoils and so on—re-suspension. So I think that, in this way, we have been a little lax in terms of recognising the risks there.

Going to the other issue, of the amount of resources: I do not think we are putting enough into this. As pointed out, the economic value of this ecosystem is enormous, yet we are spending a tiny fraction on what are clear threats to the reef. If you were running a business, you would not be spending a part of one per cent on research and development or minimising risk; you would be spending a lot more—10 per cent or so. So this is a big issue.

Because we are not spending much, it is going to be really important to prioritise where we put those actions, and I think coastal processes are really important. The linkages back to things like fishing and tourism are really important. We need to know a lot more about those. And we need to know how we are going to help people who are affected by the changes that are occurring—and this is the social-ecological system that Professor Mumby talked about. These are really important areas.

CHAIR: Thank you, Professor. Senator Waters?

Senator WATERS: Thanks very much, Chair. Thanks very much, Professor and colleague. It is great to have you both here. I have so many questions for you, and unfortunately I have limited time. I will start with: how can the federal government show the leadership that you say it needs to show to save the reef if it is planning to delegate its decision making responsibilities down to state governments and various senior public servants in that scheme? Do you have any concerns with that proposed approach of the current government?

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : Much as I respect the people at the state level—and I think there are some serious attempts to try and look at this problem—I do have concerns, because the original establishment of the park was based on the idea that we should take it out of the state focus and put it at a federal level, and if we go to 1981, with the World Heritage and the UNESCO committee, it is clear that this is an ecosystem that is owned, to some extent, by the world. To put it back down into state processes may distort that original objective. This is one of the great wonders of the world. I have been spoilt, as a scientist, working on a reef that is 2,000 kilometres long that has very little pressure on it in terms of the things you see in South-East Asia. It has been this amazing thing. It is no wonder that it got World Heritage listed. So I do have concerns. Again, it is not a reflection on people at the state level—I think we have some really good leaders there—but I think we have to be so careful that, into the future, that is not abused.

Senator WATERS: You mention in your submission that it is your scientific view that further expansion of coastal activities is inconsistent with the World Heritage Committee's recommendations to keep the reef on the World Heritage List and not get it put onto that List of World Heritage in Danger. Can you tell us a bit more about the World Heritage Committee's recommendations and your views about actions that are inconsistent with those recommendations?

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : A big part of the commitment of a country in getting a World Heritage listing, whether it is natural or cultural or so on, is that you will maintain that asset. As we started out, from 1981, I think we put in place some very important initiatives to keep this great asset as it was. The zoning of the park and the rezoning in 2004 were very positive steps. But when you look at recent infringements, I would say, on the management of the reef, such as facilities being built on Curtis Island and so on, I think the world got a very different message. They suddenly got a message that said that we were not really the best marine park managers in the world and doing the best for the Great Barrier Reef, that we were cutting corners. I think that has led to the current very negative situation where it seems that, at every turn, we are almost trying to prove that we do not really care about that commitment we made in 1981. So I think there is a real risk that we could get to a point where the Great Barrier Reef is listed as World Heritage in danger. As for what that does to tourism—it could actually boost tourism. We might even have 'last chance to see'-type tourism. But it is not a lasting strategy and I think we need to be very careful about how we are managing this. It flows onto everything about our country and whether we are the responsible environmental managers that we claim to be.

Senator WATERS: Did either of you sign the letter to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority—I think it was from 233 scientists—urging the GBRMPA not to approve offshore dumping at the Abbot Point coal terminal expansion? If not, can you talk to us about that particular issue and the dual threats of climate change and water quality and what is driving those?

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : This is the dumping of dredging spoils?

Senator WATERS: Yes.

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : I cannot remember if I signed it, but it would be something that I would consider signing. We have heard the argument that there are bigger fish to fry in terms of sediments and nutrients coming into the Great Barrier Reef and so therefore what is a small matter of three million cubic metres of sludge, dredge and so between friends? I think the analogy about the football competition was a good one. This is in the wrong direction. We have a problem. We are not performing well. If you take the KPI of the health of the Great Barrier Reef, it is declining. Submitting a team into that competition means that that competition goes on. We will continue—another three here, another three there. I think we just have to stop. This is such a valuable ecosystem. It is providing enormous numbers of jobs. It is iconic. It is our lifestyle and culture. Being able to go into the mangroves and go crabbing—all of those things are involved in the value of this system. Therefore, if there are other mechanisms to deal with that dredge, we should take them, even if they are more expensive, because the value in perpetuity of the Great Barrier Reef is enormous. It goes way beyond mining and the short-term benefits of those industries. This is Australia. It is our future.

Senator McGRATH: What are the greatest threats to the Great Barrier Reef?

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : I think they are twofold: the near-term threat is water quality; the long-term threat, which I think is enormous, is the effect of ocean warming and acidification on coral reefs like the Great Barrier Reef. What was discussed before and which has been adopted as a consensus within the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change's latest report is that, if we keep up the rate of temperature change, average global temperature and the rate at which we are acidifying the ocean, which I should point out is the highest in 65 million years, we will not have much of a reef in terms of a coral dominated ecosystem by the middle of this century. When you say which one is more serious it is a bit like being on the African savanna: you have got a rhino charging you at 100 metres and an elephant coming in at 500 metres. It does not pay to take your eye off either one. They are both equally serious in my opinion.

Senator McGRATH: The government needs to prioritise policy responses. Would the health of the Reef be improved by prioritising and focusing on water quality and fighting crown-of-thorns over direct impacts from port developments and shipping?

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : Water quality is involved with the whole thing, and this is the complexity. The prize fighter is getting sicker all round. The underwater heatwaves called bleaching events are causing corals to have less ability to bounce back. There is that immediate problem, which was discussed in the previous submission, which is that impacts like crown-of-thorns, storms and so on are now having a lasting impact not because in the case of storms that there is a clear indication they have increased; it is just the ability to recover has really diminished.

Senator McGRATH: In relation to climate change: you talked about Curtis Island and the expansion there—are you saying we should not be exporting and we should close down our resource sector?

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : I do not think we should shut down our resource sector; in fact I think we need to think that the world will be rapidly decarbonising within the next couple of decades. This is a great opportunity for many countries, including our own, to retool for a future energy system and way of doing things. That is going to take a collaboration across society, across industry, but we need to wake up and smell the coffee because this is happening.

The words of John Kerry at a conference last week went something like 'He only way to solve a problem like ocean acidification is to retool our energy system.' That is coming from the secretary of state. I think we are going to hear more and more of this.

A report came out just yesterday showing that the pace of climate change is occurring much faster than we originally thought or predicted. We are going to see it. We need to get smart on this. I don't think we want to be waiting till the last moment to (a) wake up to the problem and (b) not have orientated our investments to best suit that future that is coming. I don't believe in getting rid of the resources sector; I believe that we have got to get smart and reorientate the emphasis that we are putting in how we generate energy, how we transport ourselves, how we grow our food and so on, because the world is going to change dramatically over the coming decades whether we like it or not.

CHAIR: Can you make some comments about the adequacy or otherwise of the Reef Trust program that has been announced by the federal government in the context of this discussion about where we have got to focus our energies?

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : I think that is a good initiative. It is one that we need to see more of. And I think the leadership at the state level is really important. My comments before were not about people or individuals but the idea that throughout those three layers we—state, national and international—have to be busy in helping people understand. I think that is a really legitimate way that we need to do things. We need to actually find the research initiatives that are going to solve problems effectively and at a good price. So I think this is a good initiative. We need to many more of those.

Senator RUSTON: Are there any other initiatives, whether they be federal or state government, in relation to the immediacy of the issues on the reef that you think are good, that are working, that could be ramped up or improved to try to accelerate the delivery of some of the outcomes we seek? I just want the little-detail bits.

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : Continuing to have a strong Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is really important—maintaining that independence, which has been eroded somewhat over the past decade. But rebuilding that independence is really important, because this goes beyond politics. That would be one thing that I think we need to do.

Dr Pillans : I think the reef plan itself over the last five to 10 years has been an excellent initiative at both the state and the federal level. We have not yet seen the detail of the Reef 2050 plan, which was announced recently, but I think it is coming out very soon. I believe it is taking on that reef plan target approach, because of the success of the reef plan—if we could roll that out across Queensland across both levels of government, including the research community. There has been this change in government so there has been a bit of a lack of information until now. We have the Reef Trust and now hopefully Reef 2050 will be able to come out to us. I do see that there are great linkages between the various research institutes and scientific institutes across the Queensland coastline, which both levels of government have access to. We are on your doorstep, to be able to help with that science-informing policy agenda that I know both governments are very keen to do. I have had conversations with them. But I think to actually see it in writing in a policy priority plan would be the best way to go at the moment, considering the newness of the governments and the way to work together. We have new governments at both levels. I have worked only in governments that have been in different parties at both levels. Because there is a consistency now at both levels of government I am just hoping there is an opportunity that the research community can feed into the policy agenda.

Senator BULLOCK: Thank you for your comments at the end of your submission about setting priorities. In the expenditure of government money, having appropriate priorities is going to make a world of difference to their effectiveness. Looking at cost-effectiveness, you note early on the economic value added of the World Heritage Area as being $5.68 billion. Against that you need to set the $24¼ billion that is generated each year by the coal industry and the prospect that that might triple, according to the Queensland Resources Council, although they may have got a little less excited in recent times. There is no doubt that there is a significant contribution. But also looking at the risks, you say that given that water quality has been identified as one of the greatest threats to the Great Barrier Reef, recent decisions by the Minister for the Environment to dump three million cubic metres of dredging spoils at Abbot Point is serious. Given the relative size of those two economic contributions, why do you single that out against the $5 million of dredging waste to be dumped to deepen the Cairns harbour for tourist ships?

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : If I have the question right, you could argue that one sector is going to be generating more cash than another, so why would we—

Senator BULLOCK: And less waste.

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : And less waste, yes. I find that really interesting, and there are some chilling facts about not dealing with, say, the climate issue and what happens to the Great Barrier Reef. One of those is with ocean acidification—and this is in the IPCC consensus—that the effects last for tens of thousands of years, because the only way you return is by weathering rocks that bring alkali back into the ocean. So it is really hard sometimes, I think, to compare—we will earn X billion dollars from coal and only Y per year from the Great Barrier Reef—when the Great Barrier Reef will go on for a very long time if we treat it well and we do not do this horrible thing to it, versus an extraction that will be decades long and then finish.

The other problem with those predictions about how much coal we are going to export is that it assumes that people are going to be buying it. There is a large range of analyses now that show that we have between 500 and 1,000 gigatonnes of CO2 left to emit into the atmosphere, yet we are producing globally 35 per year. So, that budget is what it is required that we stay within. Otherwise, we get into these really nasty climate scenarios. Eighty per cent of the listed reserves of coal and gas will not have buyers if that is correct, which means we have made a very big infrastructure blunder. That is in the scientific literature, it is in the economic literature. It is a very interesting and I think looming issue that we need to deal with. I know I have gone beyond the context of your question—

Senator BULLOCK: I just wanted to satisfy myself that you were prepared to accept the sediment plumes that might derive from five million cubic metres of waste, as long as it was associated with the tourist industry.

Senator WATERS: We have heard a lot of talk about the various threats to the reef, and there was a question from Senator McGrath that seemed to imply that the port developments did not impact water quality. Can you clarify for us your scientific view on the effects of port development on water quality?

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : Anything that disturbs coastal vegetation or coastal processes contributes to the problem of water quality. That goes all the way up into the catchments. It includes port developments along coastlines. There are best practices, and I think we can get to a point, because we do have to export, and there are industries, and I recognise that. But we have to be very cognisant that it is difficult to get a port to act like a great mangrove or one of these natural filter systems. So, going down a route of expanding that footprint will I think necessarily mean that there will be an impact on water quality.

I think it is really important to point out that we do not know everything. Certainly we do not have a complete understanding of what happens when you do X, Y and Z or whether you can really severely contain the changes in water quality. But the precautionary principle should surely be used here. It is not a case of us having to prove that it is going to have an impact. I think those industries that are trying to put in ports have to prove that there will not be an impact and there will not be a contribution to the aggregated impacts that are making our prize fighter less able to get up and punch.

Senator WATERS: We have the coal industry running television ads saying that the threats to the reef effectively have nothing to do with them, because they are about extreme weather, ocean temperature warming and coral bleaching and the crown-of-thorns. From your climate expertise, can you comment on the impact that climate has on each of those three impacts and the role of the coal industry in driving those impacts?

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : This relates to the paper produced by Glenn De'ath and others at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, where they recorded this 27-year 50 per cent decline in coral cover. They were able to point out through the surveys—which are the most rigorous in the world, I should point out—that there were three problems. There were storms, which were about half of the problem; crown-of-thorns, 42 per cent; and bleaching, which is related to climate change and underwater heatwaves. In those advertisements there was the implication that storms are not a coastal issue and that the crown-of-thorns is not a water quality issue either and so therefore these are not related to those activities within the watershed of the Great Barrier Reef. That is wrong. We have heard already the evidence from the previous scientists on the panel. I know from my own professional work that this is about the prize fighter. Storms have occurred over thousands of years, but corals have bounced back very quickly. If you do not have storms coming more than every 10 years the reef still survives, but what we have done with the water quality is that the corals are being poisoned by pesticides, nutrients and sediments and they just not going back fast enough to keep up with the big storms that come through. So they are linked.

If we take the crown-of-thorns, the best scientific evidence—it is produced by Katharina Fabricius and others at the Australian Institute of Marine Science—is that periodic flooding bringing nutrients and sediments out of catchments, disturbances to coastal processes, leads to algal blooms that happen more often that feed the baby starfish that then lead to outbreak in plague proportions. There is a very strong link. This is science published in peer-reviewed literature.

When you look at the aggregated impacts and direct linkages between land and sea and things like the crown-of-thorns outbreak, there is a very strong link to water quality and there is a strong link of port activities to that deterioration in water quality. It may be a death by 1,000 cuts, but it is certainly going in the wrong direction. That would be my answer. I think those ads were very misleading.

Senator RUSTON: I take your point. Equally, it could be said that there has been a media campaign that is suggesting that it is entirely the impacts of the port and shipping that have been causing this problem and that you have only to look at the Ben & Jerry roadshow around Australia to suggest that you. We have two extremes. The coal industry has the extreme on one side. Surely it has to land somewhere in the middle?

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : The only way to sort this out is through following evidence based science and policy development. That is absolutely central here. We live in a media world. We live in a bloggers world. People believe other people blogging late at night more than they believe scientists. We have to get back to the fact that we have to look at those facts. We have to be clever. We have to take the implications and put in place policies that fix the problem. It is about evidence.

Senator RUSTON: Stop using what suits your outcome and start using what you can prove.

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : Absolutely. That is on both sides, as we know.

Senator RUSTON: On the crown-of-thorns starfish, would significantly improved water quality in itself deal with the issue of the crown-of-thorns or are there other things that would need to change to enable us to deal with this problem?

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : There are two parts to this. Water quality is the driver. There is a great paper by a guy called Chuck Birkeland who, in the eighties, noticed that three years after floods in Pacific nations you would have outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish. So there is a link between coastal flooding, nutrients and starfish, and then there is all this other evidence from experimental work and so on. Switching that off would be the ideal solution, because trying to kill every last crown-of-thorns in outbreak across the reef is an enormous, Herculean task that is pretty much impossible. However, at the level of resorts—tourist platforms that are often earning millions of dollars for our economy and so on—there are techniques such as the injection of poisons into starfish that can have an effect at that level. You can actually clear an area of crown-of-thorns. But as for solving the Great Barrier Reef-wide issue, it is all about dealing with the coastal water quality issue. It is just too big otherwise. There is nothing you can do there. I do not think anyone has invented the ideal biological control organism, and of course you only have to think of our friend the cane toad to know that that is a pretty dangerous place to go.

Senator RUSTON: But would water quality alone deal with the issue?

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : Yes, although there is some interesting research with bleaching events. In underwater heat waves corals get sick. There is a bit of a correlation there with outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, so there are some other things around the edges. Improving the health of corals could help them resist the crown-of-thorns starfish, but it is very slim evidence at this point.

Senator RUSTON: So it is a qualified years.

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : It is a qualified yes—99 per cent.

Senator RUSTON: You may need to take this on notice. I would be really interested in your views about maintaining a level of sustainable development and economic activity within Queensland particularly and how that could be driven at the same time as increasing the level of protection and recovery opportunity for the reef. It is probably a way bigger question them we have time for.

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : It is a big one but my opinion would come down to the fact that there is a clever way to approach coastal systems and their management. It is about choosing the style of management we have. To some extent I think we are still stuck in the pioneer mentality which looks at the coast of Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef and thinks, 'This is huge. How could we possibly have an impact?' Well, we are. Fifty per cent of the corals in the Great Barrier Reef have disappeared since the early 1980s. If you had told me that in the early 1980s when I was exiting my university degree I would have said, 'That's impossible,' but it is happening and the pace is quickening. We need to deal with it.

CHAIR: Thank you for taking the time to appear it before us today and for your submission. It has been very useful to the committees deliberations.

Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg : Thank you for the opportunity.

P roceedings suspended from 10:26 to 10:39